After 12 days of demonstrations, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
ordered riot police to clear protestors from Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the heart
of the Turkey’s recent nationwide protest movement.
In a televised speech
before members of his ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development
Party), or AKP, Erdogan declared he will show “no more tolerance” for the
“Not only will we end the actions, we will be at the
necks of the provocateurs and terrorists,” promised a bellicose
Unlike the prime minister, several senior AKP officials
understand that most of those protesting in city squares across Turkey are
aggrieved citizens, not “provocateurs” and “terrorists.” They also realize that
these citizens have created a new oppositional politics based on civil society
and pluralist consensus, which is unlikely to disappear even if demonstrations
cease. Should popular discontent with the increasingly truculent Erdogan
continue to widen, the prime minister may face a showdown within his own
During the protests, senior AKP officials revealed a telling
discomfort with Erdogan’s politics of polarization, exploiting Islam to pit
“black Turks” (the more socially conservative, lowermiddle and working class
Sunni Turks from Anatolia) against “white Turks” (non-religious, upper-class,
urban elites). Erdogan’s demagoguery appears as an intentionally timed gambit
aimed at increasing his political power.
According to AKP party rules,
Prime Minister Erdogan, now in his third term, cannot run again as the party’s
candidate for prime minister in 2015.
Erdogan has indicated an interest
in being the AKP’s candidate in Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections. He would
need to challenge Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, an AKP co-founder
along with Erdogan.
With Turkey in the midst of drafting a new
constitution, the office of the presidency has assumed a charged significance as
Turkey considers replacing its parliamentary system with a presidential form of
government. Erdogan has already indicated his preference for the new
constitution to establish a presidency with broad executive powers.
further his presidential ambitions, Erdogan has abandoned the AKP’s original
commitment to greater government accountability and civic pluralism in favor of
empowering his supporters through crony capitalism and mobilizing mass support
among the “black Turks” by portraying himself as the defender of their Islamic
In the month prior the outbreak of protests, the AKP
government implemented a series of polarizing measures for state enforcement of
conservative religious mores. Concurrently, the conservative AKP deputy chairman
and Erdogan ally Numan Kurtulmus declared a July 1 deadline for a draft
In this context, statements by certain high-ranking AKP
officials during the first week of demonstrations may indicate a more
pluralist-oriented faction within the AKP concerned to preserve the party’s
original emphasis on liberal democracy. While Erdogan dismissed the protestors
with the now infamous term “çapulcular” (plunders, looters), several key
officials addressed them as citizens with a legitimate right to have their
The first figure to articulate this position was
Abdullah Gül. On June 3, while Erdogan made an official visit to Morocco,
President Gül assumed a markedly conciliatory tone. In contrast to Erdogan, Gül
embraced the protests as a fundamental element of liberal
“Democracy does not only mean elections,” Turkey’s president
told the press, adding “the messages delivered with good intentions have been
When questioned about Gül’s remarks by reporters in Morocco,
the visibly annoyed Erdogan responded by saying that “the ballot box expresses
the will of the people.” With regard to Gül’s public reassurance that the
demonstrators’ message had been received, Erdogan caustically remarked, “When he
says he received the message, I cannot say I know the content of the
President Gül was not the only AKP senior figure to break ranks
with the prime minister. Apologizing to protesters for police excesses, Deputy
Prime Minister Bülent Arinç followed Gül’s rhetorical lead and stressed the
importance of dissent in a liberal democracy.
“We do not have the right
and cannot afford to ignore people,” Arinç declared. “Democracies cannot exist
without opposition.” Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay similarly expressed
sympathy toward the protestors in marked contrast the prime minister’s churlish
It would be a misreading to dismiss these statements as merely
an AKP good cop/bad cop routine. Abdullah Gül represents an alternative
sensibility within the AKP to the “white Turk-black Turk” demagoguery of
Erdogan. Born in Kayseri, central Anatolia, Gül hails from the heartland of the
AKP’s core constituency while holding a doctorate in economics from Istanbul
The cosmopolitan Gül served as Erdogan’s foreign minister in
the first AKP government. Advancing Turkey’s application for EU membership, Gül
helped promote democratic reforms necessary to meet European standards. In 2007,
Gül was elected president by the parliament after the AKP’s second electoral
victory. Seeing the new president as a political and, perhaps ideological
threat, Erdogan began removing many Gül associates from positions of
As recent as February 2013, Erdogan removed a Gül supporter
from an important provincial post in Gül’s native Kayseri. When the
AKP-dominated parliament enacted a controversial law reducing punishments for
matchfixing in the wake of a scandal involving major Turkish football clubs,
President Gül broke party discipline on moral grounds and vetoed the
The law passed on a subsequent vote, overriding Gül’s veto.
One of the dissenting AKP members who supported Gül’s veto was current Deputy
Prime Minister Bülent Arinç.
Arinç was one of the founders of the AKP
along with Erdogan, Gül, and Cemil Çiçek. Deputy Prime Minister Arinç is a
potential candidate to succeed Erdogan as prime minister in 2015. An ally of
President Gül, Arinç is an outspoken critic against Erdogan’s agenda to
establish a powerful presidency. Arinç is joined by his fellow deputy prime
minister Besir Atalay.
After Gül assumed the presidency in 2007, Atalay
was appointed interior minister and served in the post until 2011 when he became
one of the four AKP deputy prime ministers. Erdogan may not have been able to
order the brutal suppression of protestors had Atalay remained interior
minister. With a doctorate in sociology, Atalay served in the cabinet of prime
minister Turgut Özal. A transformational leader committed to liberal democracy,
Özal initiated Turkey’s economic liberalization and the opening of its public
sphere to religion.
As an Özal protégé, Atalay has a natural affinity for
Gül’s orientation. Atalay is also close to Cemil Çiçek, current speaker of the
Speaker Çiçek heads the committee responsible for
drafting Turkey’s new constitution. While socially conservative, Çiçek is a
consensus-builder and has reached out to Turkey’s three opposition parties over
the drafting new constitution.
To further his agenda, Erdogan would have
to isolate Gül and make it politically costly for Arinç, Atalay and Çiçek to
oppose him. By mobilizing more conservative Muslims through his politics of
polarization, Erdogan may well succeed. The AKP’s 50 percent electoral support
is contingent upon expanding economic growth and the absence of a centrist party
which could siphon more moderate voters.
If Turkey’s summer of discontent
threatens to change either of these two conditions, Erdogan will become a
liability for the AKP. The future of Turkey’s Islamic political discourse and,
with it, Turkey’s development of liberal democracy depend on the political
courage and vision within the AKP as well as within Turkey’s protest movement.
Otherwise, Turkey’s next democratic elections may simply be a majoritarian
instrument to implement an anti-pluralistic, Islamist reconstruction of Turkish
society.The author is a Fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman
Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Department of Middle
East and Islamic Studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, where he conducts
research on Islamic pluralism and democratization. He also teaches Islamic
Studies at Tel Aviv University.
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